Remembering Ustad Bismillah Khan

Image: Robert Garfias/ Creative Commons
Ustad Bismillah Khan is the greatest master of Shehnai the world has known. His soul stirring music signified harmony.

On the morning of August 15, 1947, from the ramparts of the Red Fort, India was ushered into an era of independence by the soothing sound of a Shehnai, played by its greatest master, Ustad Bismillah Khan. It was a tremendous honour, both for the player and his instrument. And it was repeated, when Jawaharlal Nehru asked Bismillah to perform in 1950 on the occasion of Republic Day.

Ever since, millions of Indians gained a familiarity with the Shehnai by listening to Republic Day broadcasts – where Bismillah’s performances became a tradition. The Shenai is a wind instrument, similar to the oboe. It’s commonly found in temples; its sound considered auspicious.

56 years later, the same Ustad listened to the proceedings of the 2006 Republic Day celebrations on the radio. He heard himself perform and remarked on how the government now used his music but failed to invite him. That same year, the man who had become synonymous with the Shehnai passed away. By his death at the age of 90, Bismillah had won every award possible for an Indian artist – from the Bharat Ratna (India’s highest civilian honour) to the Sangeet Natak Academi Award, Tansen Award and Padma Shri.

Perhaps, Bismillah would have gained in worldly fame had he accepted the invitation from an American university to be its musician in residence. But he would not leave Varanasi, where he spent his entire life.

Bismillah was born to the name Qamruddin (chosen to rhyme with that of his brother, Shamsuddin). But his grandfather, a Shehnai player in the court of Bhojpur, saw the child and exclaimed “Bismillah”. It stuck.

The Shehnai was almost destined for his hands. His family was filled with musicians, with his ancestors famously court musicians. It was an uncle, who performed at the Vishwanath temple in Varanasi (then Benares) who first saw talent in Bismillah at the Shehnai. He gave Bismillah the task of practising at the temple between seven and eleven in the night each day – and warning him not to report what he saw.

In a famous anecdote, Bismillah recounted being deep in meditation while playing, before smelling something. He opened his eyes to see the deity, Balaji, standing next to him. When he told his uncle what he saw, he was slapped for breaking his word.

Years later, the moment struck with him, as he said:

God knows no religion. God belongs to mankind. I realized this while playing at the Balaji temple.

Born a Shia Muslim, Bismillah always embraced the syncretic. For some within the extreme conservatives, music is considered “Haraam” [taboo]. But Bismillah responded,

If music is ‘Haraam’, then why has it reached such heights? Why does music make me soar towards heaven? The religion of music is one; all others are different … this is the only ‘haqeeqat’ [reality]. This is my world.

During a visit to Iran, Bismillah was said to have encountered a cluster of religious scholars – who made the same point about music being Haraam. In response, he played the Raga Bhairav, invoking Allah in his voice. “Is this Haraam? I am calling the God. I am thinking of Him; I am searching for Him. Why do you call my search Haraam?”

Bismillah’s search was also a moment of vindication for the Shehnai. Long reserved for the ceremonial alone, it was Bismillah who made it an art form. He first brought it to prominence at the 1937 All India Music Conference at Calcutta. From that peak, he ascended the next – serenading the nation on the moment of its independence – at personal invite from the to-be prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

In the years of fame that followed, Bismillah refused to resettle abroad. His first international exposure came when he performed at the Edinburgh Music Festival in 1965, along with Sitarist Vilayat Khan. The decade saw the boom of classical Indian musicians – a group that included M.S. Subbulakshmi, Ali Akbar Khan, Vilayat Khan and Ravi Shankar.

Among the Beatles, George Harrison was a fan of Bismillah’s. As he told India Today in 1976:

If I had to choose one record in the whole world, I’d select Bismillah Khan, and that’s it.

The meaning behind the music 

On the eve of Indian independence, Bismillah performed the Ragi Kafi. Thereafter, All India Radio often began their morning broadcasts with a raga from the maestro.

He would blend his ragas across religions, sometimes incorporating the Sufi Qawwali styles, other times the Azaan (call to prayer). You can hear an example of his work in the Raag Bhairav.

For decades, he single-handedly kept the Shehnai alive. He was so close to his instrument that after his wife passed away, he referred to it as his begum.

But with his passing, it is once again in trouble. To add insult to injury, several of Bismillah’s shehnais were stolen, by his own grandson. Though the thieves were caught, it was too late for the silver shehnais – which were smelted and sold for as little as Rs.17,000 ($262).

Today, the Republic Day parades remain among the last occasions keeping the Shehnai alive as a musical tradition.

This may change if plans to construct a ‘music hamlet‘ in Varanasi are followed through. In April 2017, clearance was given to a project titled ‘Bismillah Khan Sangreet Gram’ – started by Bismillah’s adoptive daughter, Soma Ghosh, herself a Padma Shri awardee.

In Bismillah’s worldview, music could never disappear. “Even if the world ends, the music will still survive. Music has no caste.” One hopes his prediction will ring true for the Shehnai.

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